Good Intentions and Hidden Costs

Perhaps More Oversight Needed?

Producers of vegan and vegetarian goods like Alternative Baking Company claim that their products have a better environmental impact than non-vegan/vegetarian goods.  This is an understandable claim, particularly since the environmental impact of the meat industry is well-documented.  Indeed, vegan advocates in general claim that their lifestyle is better for the environment.  As ABC says on its cookie labels: “No single food choice has a farther-reaching and more profoundly positive impact on… the environment, and all of life on Earth than choosing vegan.”

However, this claim is potentially seriously misleading, if not outright wrong.  ABC’s cookies substitute animal oils (like butter), dairy, and eggs with palm oil.  To be sure, ABC now (since August 2013) uses palm oil certified by the RSPO, which is less destructive than the non-certified palm oil that is responsible for wiping out acres of Indonesia’s rainforest.

Firefighters spray water to burning palm oil trees in haze hit Dumai, in Indonesia’s Riau province. Photograph: Beawiharta/REUTERS

But this does not let RSPO off the hook.  Third-party certification like RSPO is primarily a market tool: certifiers and producers have an incentive to get as many people certified as possible, even if it means watering down the stringency of this certification scheme.  And, according to Greenpeace and the Guardian, that is exactly what is happening.  RSPO plantations in Indonesia and Brazil (where ABC sources their oil) are still engaged in rampant deforestation and have contributed to “significant deforestation” in certified areas.  As you can imagine, deforestation in countries like Indonesia and Brazil have tremendous environmental impacts, ranging from a loss in biodiversity, to displacement of rural inhabitants, to land degradation and deforestation, and – of course – increased GHG emissions.

So what’s the upshot?  First, this idea that a vegan/vegetarian diet is somehow, intrinsically, better for the environment is simply not true.  A diet based on the exploitation of pristine rainforest is far worse than a diet based on the consumption of locally-sourced, sustainable animal products.  Second, third party certification should be scrutinized very carefully.  Third party certification is foremost a business model, and like all business models, the primary incentive is to make profits in a defined market.  This is not to say that it can’t lead to better environmental practices, but this is not a necessary outcome, and should not be assumed.

For ABC (and other companies that use RSPO certified palm oil), their choices are clear: either 1) do better research and use vegan oils that are less environmentally problematic than RSPO palm oil; 2) stop assuming that “vegan” = “environmentally good,” and use more sustainable oils, even if they come from animal products; 3) continue using RSPO oil, but remove all claims that this has a “profoundly positive impacts on… the environment.”